Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burned palms or Palm Crosses of the previous year’s Palm Sunday. This practice is common in much of Christendom, celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter, occuring as early as February 4 (February 5 on leap years) or as late as March 10.
Christians look to the Old Testament as the origin of the practice of marking oneself with ashes. It says for instance in Jeremiah 6:26, “Oh, daughter of my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes” (see also Isa. 58:5; Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:6). The New Testament picks up this theme emphasizing ashes as a sign of repentance. For instance, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13). While the opening Millennium had just a few references to ashes in Christian liturgy, it was in the 12th Century when the modern tradition of burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday and applying their charred remains to the penitent developed.
When a minister applies the ashes to one’s forehead, he often conveys an admonition such as the following:
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Repent, and hear the good news.
While many of us low-church types may not actually receive ashes, the day is nevertheless a golden opportunity to evaluate the state of our souls and express to God a healthy measure of repentance and contrition. Along this line, D.L. Moody (not exactly a high-churchman) has a timely word of exhortation for us:
I firmly believe that the Church of God will have to confess her own sins, before there can be any great work of grace. There must be a deeper work among God’s believing people. I sometimes think it is about time to give up preaching to the ungodly, and preach to those who confess to be Christians. If we had a higher standard of life in the Church of God, there would be thousands more flocking into the Kingdom. So it was in the past; when God’s believing children turned away from their sins and their idols, the fear of God fell upon the people round about. Take up the history of Israel, and you will find that when they put away their strange gods, God visited the nation, and there came a mighty work of grace . . . The judgment of God must begin with us.1
If confession of sin is deep among believers, it will be so among the ungodly also. I never knew it to fail. I am now anxious that God should revive His work in the hearts of His children, so that we may see the exceeding sinfulness of sin.2
1 Dwight L. Moody, Prevailing Prayer (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), 28.
2 Ibid., 32.